Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet )  (1694-1778)

François-Marie Arouet (nicknamed ‘Voltaire,’) was a French philosopher, poet, pamphleteer and fiction writer. Candide, a novel, is the work that has lasted best, still thriving in the modern world. It is widely taught in French schools and universities and French departments in universities worldwide. The British literary critic, Martin Seymour-Smith, named it as one of the hundred most influential books ever written. It is included in the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World. The novel has influenced modern writers of dark satirical humour such as Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, Terry Southern and Kurt Vonnegut. Its brand of parody and the picaresque methods Voltaire uses have become standard techniques of black humorists.

Voltaire was a versatile writer, writing in almost every literary form – including plays, poems, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works. He wrote more than 20,000 letters and more than 2,000 books and pamphlets. He was an outspoken champion of liberty, at great danger to himself. He was a staunch critic of the intolerance, religious dogma, and French institutions of his time.

The influence of Voltaire’s writings, particular Candide, on subsequent literature, has been profound. Some twentieth-century works influenced by Candide are novels of dystopian science fiction, such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.

Portrait of Voltaire

Portrait of Voltaire

Some of the modern genres in literature have been influenced by Candide, for example, the 20th century’s Theatre of the Absurd. The Voltaire scholar, Hadyn Mason, cites similarities between Candide and Samuel Becket’s Waiting for Godot. Becket has acknowledged the influence of Voltaire on his work. Several novelists have based their novels more squarely on Candide. It has also been made into an opera by Leonard Bernstein, and there have been a number of films, including the 1973 the BBC featuring it in its Play of the Month series.

Voltaire was enormously influential in the development of a modern approach to history, demonstrating fresh ways to look at the past. His best-known histories are The Age of Louis XIV (1751), and Essay on the Customs and the Spirit of the Nations (1756). The latter traced the progress of world civilization in a universal context and rejected both nationalism and the Christian frame of reference that had been the tradition in history writing. Voltaire was thefirst scholar to make a serious attempt to write the history of the world, eliminating theological frameworks in favour of economics, culture and political history.

Voltaire’s influence as a philosopher is incalculable. Western thinking has been conditioned to a large extent by such of his statements as:

  • ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’
  • ‘Doctors are men who prescribe medicines of which they know little, to cure diseases of which they know less, in human beings of whom they know nothing’
  • ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him’
  • ‘God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh’

…and many others that are familiar to us and whichwe use in our everyday speech.

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